UNC Health Care
cartoon of two silhouettes of children filled with pink and blue 'preservatives'

How Food Additives Can Harm Children

We all know good nutrition is important, but new research is highlighting just how damaging some foods can be for a child’s early development. One of the main culprits: additives, according to multiple studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

In a new article published in the August 2018 issue of Pediatrics, the AAP describes how food additives can negatively impact and interfere with a child’s hormones, growth and development, potentially causing consequences as wide-ranging as infertility, obesity, cardiovascular disease and decreased immunity.

Food additives are used in food and its packaging to preserve or modify taste, appearance and texture. This can be done by putting the chemicals directly into the food—such as with nitrates or food coloring—or indirectly using them in food packaging—things like plastics, dyes, paper, cardboard and different coatings—that can then be transferred into food and ingested.

The U.S. allows the use of more than 10,000 additives, about 10 percent of which are used under a “generally recognized as safe” designation that doesn’t require Food and Drug Administration approval, according to the AAP.

AAP is calling for more research and testing of additives currently on the market.

In the meantime, what is a parent to do?

We talked to Ty G. Bristol, MD, MPH, pediatrician and medical director of UNC Pediatrics of Panther Creek to get some answers.

The AAP has suggested that some food additives can interfere with a child’s hormones, growth and development. Can you explain some of the science behind that?

With children, you have a brain that’s growing and developing. A developing brain is much more susceptible and vulnerable. The AAP is saying that there is some evidence that having these chemicals in your child’s body—which shouldn’t be there in the first place—can affect neurological development and the endocrine system, which regulates hormones.

The issue with some of the food additives is we don’t know yet how or where they work in the body, and if they cause an issue or just make it worse. For example, in kids with ADHD, we always ask parents if there are any foods that seem to make their children more hyper. Food colorings are a big one: They don’t cause ADHD, but they can make it worse.

The endocrine system is involved in growth and hormones, so if additives affect estrogen or testosterone, it can also affect development during puberty and even fertility.

Again, they’re still developing the evidence for how these things work in terms of negative effects and where they work in the body. It’s hard to do these studies because we’re not going to give a 2-year-old plastics to ingest and then check back in a few years to see how he was affected. On top of that, there are so many things that can impact somebody. So, let’s say that 2-year-old is exposed to some plastics, and then years go by. If he has developmental problems, is it the plastics or something that has happened to him throughout the years? We’re still trying to figure that out.

How can these effects show up in adulthood?

If you get exposed to something as a child and it starts affecting your system, the effects could be there for a long, long time. It could affect your hormones, so it might not actually show up with a growth issue until you hit puberty, or later on when you have issues with fertility. You can be exposed to something very early, and the impact later is what’s of great concern.

What additives do you suggest parents stay away from?

Food dyes and colorings are a big one, because that’s something that is easier to see and control. For example, the milk you pour into cereal is white, so if the milk changes color, you know the cereal has a dye. When parent are out shopping, if they see foods that are unnatural colors, you know dyes have been added. You can also look at the ingredient list, where colorings and dyes fall under names such as “FD&C Red No. 40” and “FD&C Yellow No. 5.”

Plastics are another one. They shouldn’t be in the body. Parents should avoid any plastic containers with the recycling codes 3, 6 and 7, as these indicate the presence of plastic additives phthalates, styrene and bisphenols (BPA), respectively.

Sugar is naturally occurring, but many food companies put extra sugar in foods, which has a big impact on many different parts of the body: nutrition, weight and so on. It’s not an additive in the same way as colorings or plastic, but excess added sugar is something else that we always recommend avoiding.

Do you have any additional tips for parents when it comes to improving diet and reducing exposure to additives?

We really try to encourage fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s better to eat the apple than apple juice because the sugar content, even natural sugar, is a lot. Also try to make sure that the meats you’re eating aren’t processed. Stay away from sausage, hot dogs, bacon, ham, beef jerky and canned meat, for example.

The issue of drinking bottles has come up a lot within the past few years. A lot of kids bring a bottle of water to sports events or school, which can contain BPA. Parents should make sure if they’re using a plastic bottle that it doesn’t have BPA. Again, they should look at the recycling code to help determine that—avoid 3, 6 and 7. Think about using glass or stainless steel bottles instead.

Also, be careful when heating plastic. If the bottle is sitting in the sun, the heat can cause the plastic additives to seep into water and be ingested. The same thing goes for heating foods in the microwave. Try to decrease how much you’re reheating foods, especially in plastic, or warming up milk or formula in plastic bottles so the additives won’t leak into the food or milk. Instead, consider reheating foods in ceramic dishes.


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